The artist presented this recently acquired portrait at the Salon of 1853. The sitter was Palmira Maddalena Gertrude Leonardi (Rome 1823-?), the painter’s wife. She was 30 years old at the time and is wearing a black mourning dress (four years previously, in 1849, the couple had lost two daughters). Although it is an artist’s tribute to his wife, these days the work seems to bear witness to a particularly unhappy marriage. In 1860, Le Gray saw his luxurious photographic portrait studio in Paris go into liquidation. Riddled with debts, he abandoned his wife and children and left Paris for Marseille, setting off on board Alexandre Dumas’ schooner in June 1860. After spending time traveling in the Middle East, he finally settled in Egypt in winter 1861.
Musée d’Orsay’s national collection of photographs is one of the benchmark collections on the beginnings of photography in France. The positive prints and negatives by Gustave Le Gray it contains are one of its major ensembles. Multidisciplinarity has been a central concern of the Museum’s ever since its creation. This being so, the connections between painting and photography in the 19th century is one of its collection’s and acquisition policy’s major focuses. Hence, the Portrait of Madame G. L. has a natural place at Musée d’Orsay. It is one of the very few paintings by Le Gray known to have survived, and the first to make its way into a French public collection.
- Thomas Galifot, Chief Curator Photography